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Making suicide routine

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Ninety-six percent of the patients never get a psychological evaluation before receiving lethal drugs

Richard
Doerflinger

You would not know it from the national secular news, but a lot is happening on the contentious issue of physician-assisted suicide. One remarkable fact is that no state has passed a law allowing the practice this year, although laws allowing it went into effect in California and Colorado last year. Such proposals have stalled or been defeated outright in 23 states whose sessions are over for the year. In New York, a state targeted by the advocacy group Compassion & Choices, a bill approved in committee last year could not get that far in 2017.

This agenda has lost some momentum nationally. In states that have legalized assisted suicide, however, the trend is toward making the practice more hidden from public view and even routine. A case in point is our most populous state, California. Its End of Life Options Act, which took effect last June, requires the state to report every summer on the past year's cases. The first official report was issued on June 27, 2017, covering lethal prescriptions written in the last six months of 2016. Observers were interested to see this report.

Annual reports from Oregon and Washington, where assisted suicide has been legal for a longer time, have shown some disturbing facts: Ninety-six percent of the patients never get a psychological evaluation before receiving lethal drugs; the drugs have had complications and sometimes failed; usually no physician or other health professional is present at the time of death to assess competency or the possibility of coercion. In these states, relatively few patients say they are taking their lives due to untreatable pain or fear of future pain; about half say they have become a "burden" on family or caregivers (a statement that psychologists recognize as a red flag suggesting clinical depression).

So what are the initial findings on these important matters, in a state with almost 10 times the population of Oregon? California's answer: It's none of your business.

The state's brief and superficial report contains only demographic breakdowns. In the second half of 2016, 191 people received lethal prescriptions; 111 used the drugs to take their lives. Of the other 80 people, 21 died without taking the drugs and the fate of the other 59 is unknown. Most patients taking the drugs were seniors (median age of 73), most were female and most had only governmental health insurance (Medicare and/or the state Medicaid program). And so on. But the report is silent on what actually happened in these cases.

To be sure, doctors had to submit compliance forms with this information; the state simply chose not to release it. And death certificates must cite the patient's underlying illness, not the lethal overdose, as cause of death, to ensure "confidentiality" (that is, no independent investigation). But Compassion & Choices is happy to fill the information gap. Having helped write the law allowing such inadequate official reports, the organization declares that the law is "working remarkably well." Everyone involved in the process is pleased, or pleasantly dead.

How does Compassion & Choices know this? Well, this special interest group was deeply involved in "educating" doctors on the law, connecting patients with those willing to give them lethal overdoses and guiding families through the process. Imagine a state where Planned Parenthood is allowed to take over the obstetrics profession, periodically assuring everyone that there are no problems with the abortion industry and no one else is allowed to question that.

This is what we now have in California for vulnerable, seriously ill patients. Nothing to see here, ladies and gentlemen, just move along. If we do so, it will be our own fault.

Richard Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.

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